Winner of this year’s Best Picture Oscar,
Nomadland tells the story of a woman who
finds stability while being adrift
Frances McDormand in Nomadland
Some of the most stimulating moments in film history have occurred at a point where documentary and constructed narrative intersect or blur into each other. Nearly a 100 years ago, Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North—about the Inuit people of the Canadian Arctic—introduced viewers to a world they knew little about; but doing this entailed a certain degree of artifice and use of scripted scenes. A century on, Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, which won best picture, best director and best actress at the Oscars this week, also melds reality with a fictional narrative while chronicling lives outside the mainstream: in this case, the van-dwelling “nomads” of modern-day America who live on the road and form communities and camps to help each other.
Some scenes here could easily have come out of a straight documentary, including the appearances by real people—such as Bob Wells, president of the Homes on Wheels Alliance—speaking as if being interviewed for the camera. Yet, in adapting its script from a non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder, Nomadland organises itself around an invented character. After losing her job during the Great Recession, the recently widowed Fern (played by Frances McDormand, her face a study in both desolation and hope) hits the outdoors with her van and gradually finds a series of support systems. In the process, through her eyes, we learn about this vital culture and way of life.
So here is a professional actress playing a scripted character and interacting with real nomads who are playing themselves—or rather, versions of themselves. (One person, Swankie, is shown as dying of cancer in the film though she is still alive in reality.) Nomadland has verisimilitude but also a cinematic sweep. On the whole, I admired it more than I felt emotionally touched by it. But in a few scenes, when a connect takes place, the effect is devastating: take the moment when a friend of Fern’s, trying too hard to be helpful, accidentally breaks her plates and we see how shattered she is. One senses how much these physical belongings (which probably carry memories of her husband) mean to her, even though she is now letting go of possessions.
It feels strange, at a time when we are all being asked to stay indoors, to watch the unsheltered outside being presented as a character in itself. But this is a story about being adrift and tethered at once. Its opening and closing scenes may evoke John Ford’s The Searchers (also about new, fluid definitions of ‘home’), but Nomadland is essentially a one-of-its-kind film, heartfelt in its contrasting of Fern’s chosen life with the more structured possibilities that might be available to her.
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